If ever a show can be called “unique,” it’s the truly one-of-a-kind comedy with music 2 Pianos 4 Hands, now playing at the Colony Theatre.

Written by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt and superbly performed by Roy Abramsohn and Jeffrey Rockwell, 2 Pianos 4 Hands is the autobiographical tale of two boys with a dream—to become world class concert pianists.

Though that particular dream didn’t come true, Dykstra and Greenblatt did grow up to become successful actor-writer-director-composers, and about fifteen years ago, they sat down to write a show about their shared childhood ambitions, one which would also showcase their multi-talents.  Since those years of piano lessons did indeed pay off in creating two fine pianists, 2 Pianos 4 Hands turned into the perfect star vehicle for the pair, as it now for the similarly gifted Abramsohn and Rockwell.

The setup is simple, and precisely what the play’s title suggests. On the Colony stage stand a pair of grand pianos, a pair of piano benches, and two performers.  That’s it, yet that’s more than enough to create an entirely delightful and charming evening of theater, one that earns quite possibly the loudest and longest standing ovation I’ve heard at the Colony.

Dykstra and Greenblatt’s script lets us know from the get-go that we’re about to be treated to laughs aplenty. It turns out that Ted and Richard have seated themselves at the wrong piano, and this means not only trading pianos, but trading piano benches as well (and making sure that each bench is in precisely the proper position for optimum piano playing artistry). They begin by executing a simple scale or two, an exercise which soon turns into a battle of dueling scales using just about every finger on two pairs of hands, which turns into a rollicking “Heart And Soul” and then into “Chopsticks.” It’s one heck of an opening number!

Flashbacks take us to Ted and Richard’s childhood piano lessons. Richard’s first piano teacher was Sister Loyola, and as is the case throughout the entire show, when Abramsohn is playing Richard, Rockwell turns into whatever character Richard is sharing the stage with, and vice versa. The result is a pair of performances involving not only terrific piano playing, but some bang-up (and often gender-bending) acting as well.  Sister Loyola (an Irish accented Rockwell) defines major and minor keys as “happy” and “sad.” More specifically, minor is “sad, dark, and gloomy,” which is precisely how the Sister feels when Ted once again fails to grasp the fundamentals. Time for yet another “cup of tea and a lie-down,” and one which won’t be Sister Loyola’s last.

Meanwhile Ted’s lesson is unfolding like a Burns and Allen or Abbott and Costello skit, with slow-learning Ted as Gracie Allen or Lou Costello—until wonder of wonders—by George, he seems to get it!

In fact, little by little, step by step, both boys start to actually improve, though practicing is never one of their favorite pastimes.  When Richard’s dad informs him that he’d better not stop practicing or “there’ll be no TV tonight,” Richard has no choice but to promise, but since his fingers are busy on the keyboard, it’s his legs that he crosses to excuse the fib.  As everyone knows, it’s not nice to lie to Daddy, even if life with Father sometimes seems like a dictatorship, especially when Star Trek is about to start.

For a while, Richard’s dad thinks it’s best to proctor his son’s practice sessions.  Unfortunately, Dad’s imperious ways make poor Richard cry, prompting father to explain to son, “When Daddy cares a lot, Daddy gets loud.”  The two then strike a deal. Richard promises one hour of practice a day until the day he reaches age seventeen (even though that’s seven more years!) on one condition. Dad is never again going to practice with him for the rest of his life!  

A game of piano one-upmanship between Ted and Richard allows Abramsohn and Rockwell to show off their talents as physical comedians.  There is considerable slapstick in 2 Pianos 4 Hands, with an accent on the slap, and each performer is given his chance to shine in multiple roles.

Abramsohn is a hoot as a trio of piano teachers with accents—a Hungarian who pronounces “piece” as “piss” (repeatedly), a Southern belle in the tradition of Blanch Dubois, and a French monsieur who instructs Ted that arpeggios should be played with BOTH hands. “When you make love to a woman, do you use only one ‘and?” asks the Frenchman. “I DON’T KNOW!” bemoans the still virginal Ted.

Rockwell is very funny as a highly Teutonic German army general (sorry, that should be piano teacher) and as Signore Scarlatti, an Italian instructor aghast at Richard’s two-handed arpeggios. 

On a more serious note, Abramsohn plays Ted’s father, a man sincerely concerned about his son’s lack of friends and dislike for sports, in a scene which gives both actors the chance to show off some very real acting chops.  

Throughout the evening, Abramsohn and Rockwell perform snippets of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg, Chopin, Liszt, Schubert, and Paul Anka.  A frustrated pounding with twenty fingers on the keys of both keyboards erupts into a spontaneous medley of pop hits including “Benny And The Jets,” “Imagine,” “Linus And Lucy,” Chariots Of Fire,” and “Great Balls Of Fire.”

Ultimately, Ted and Richard’s childhood dreams don’t come true according to plan, as a disastrous interview for admission to a prestigious conservatory, a job teaching piano at the ABC School Of Music to the decidedly untalented Mrs. Marsha Billingsley, and a gig at the piano bar from Hell make perfectly clear. (Abramsohn is a riot as Mrs. Billingsley and Rockwell gets just as many laughs as Richard’s drunken heckler.)  If Ted and Richard don’t become two of the best piano players in the country, let alone the state or the city, they do at least become two of the best in the neighborhood, and the concert world’s loss is the legitimate stage’s gain.

Rockwell has played just about every romantic lead there is in musical theater, though it’s his acting/piano playing Colony appearances in “Gunmetal Blues,” “Billy Bishop Goes To War,” and “The Musical Of Musicals: The Musical” that make it no wonder the quadruple-(at least)-threat is back for 2 Pianos 4 Hands. Abramsohn’s lengthy list of credits includes more straight plays than musicals, making his piano artistry impressive indeed. (How many actors can do Albee, Ayckbourne, and 2 Pianos 4 Hands?)  Together, the two performers do such bravura work that about the only thing missing is a 42nd Street tap number or some A Chorus Line high kicks.

Director Tom Frey has been associated with 2 Pianos 4 Hands for the past ten years, having played both roles just about everywhere in the U.S. and Canada, and his experience and expertise shows in the fine performances he’s helped his two actors shape.

Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting design changes colors and patterns to fit the play’s many musical moods, and Drew Dalzell and Sean Kozma’s sound design insures that pianos and voices are mixed to perfection.  Only Alex Calle’s set (some big empty frames in front of a red velvet curtain) could have been more imaginative rather than simply functional.

The Colony has programmed numerous 2-actor plays over the past several seasons, with Trying, Educating Rita, and Rounding Third probably the most memorable. We can now add to this list 2 Pianos 4 Hands, and if the Opening Night audience’s reaction is any indication of a play’s future success, then Ted and Richard are likely to be generating many more standing ovations and shouts of “Bravo!” throughout the month ahead.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
June 20, 2009
                                                                                                       Photo: Michael Lamont

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